8 Seventeenth Century Pirate Haunts Still Open for Business

Featured — By Rachel Greenberg on September 19, 2010 at 6:00 am

Co-Authored by the well-traveled and decidedly debonair Zain Iqbal!

Walk into any Halloween party this year and you’re sure to see a bountiful number of Cap’n Jack Sparrows and corseted pirate wenches. Although it’s unclear how historically accurate these costumes may be, there are still places you can catch a glimpse of the world of real seventeenth century pirates.

Lucky for pirate-enthusiasts, pirates covered a lot of ground. Pirates plundered good ports, strong drinks, and booty from the South Seas to the Eastern Seaboard, leaving their mark which can still be seen today. Interested in traveling like a pirate? We’ll let you in on a little secret.

An Alternative to a Watery Grave: Pirate Cemetery in Il Sainte-Marie, Madagascar

Image: MissLAndMrH/Flickr

The idyllic island of Il Sainte-Marie off the north eastern coast of Madagascar was, quite possibly, the most awesome place to be if you were a pirate in the 17th century. Not only was the island an absolute tropical paradise, but it was located in the middle of two popular trade routes from the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. If booty-laden Spanish galleons cruising by your backyard wasn’t enough to keep even the most gold-loving pirate happy, the island was also free from European control (a.k.a. The Man) for most of the century.

Although it may sound silly, pirates just want to put down roots like the rest of us — and what better place to do it that Il Sainte-Marie? William Kidd, Robert Culliford, Olivier Levasseur, Henry Every, and Thomas Tew got their land-legs back, smooched their wives (and other people’s wives), and started families in Il Sainte-Marie.

Image: MissLAndMrH/MissLAndMrH/MissLAndMrH/Flickr

And although it’s common knowledge that a pirate isn’t a real legend until he’s met his watery grave at sea, a few privateers took the easy way out in death and were buried in the pirate cemetery on the island. Located near the main town of Ambodifotatra, the Il Saint-Marie’s cemetery is located on a small islet and contains the remains of multiple lesser known pirates in addition to a monument to William Kidd, whose hearty vessel Adventure Galley lays sunken just offshore.

Image: MissLAndMrH/Flickr

Scuba Dive for Millions of Dollars of Sunken Spanish Treasure in Key West, Florida

Although the haunt itself is currently submerged under a few feet of water, the Spanish Galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha and her sister ship the Santa Margarita were never meant to end up there. After leaving Spain on March 23, 1622, the Atocha and a fleet of Spanish vessels arrived in Panama two months later in order to pick up badly needed treasure from Spanish colonies which were mining massive amounts of gold, silver and precious stones. From Panama the fleet of ships then headed to Colombia where they picked up more booty before quickly setting sail for Cuba, arriving in Havana on August 22.

Image: The Life of Adventure

Image: mocr/Flickr

Pesky slave and weather delays had pushed the convoy’s schedule back six weeks, and there was a lot of concern about leaving Havana for Spain at the beginning of the hurricane season. Although hindsight is 20-20, you would think that with almost 400 million dollars (current) worth of treasure on-board, it would be better to be safe than sorry. But Spain was in the midst of the costly 30-Years War, and they desperately needed the booty to continue funding the conflict. So the fleet set out for Spain despite the hurricanes, and (you can pretty much guess how this is going to end) surprise, surprise: a hurricane struck the fleet. The Nuestra Senora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita, among others, crashed into the coral reefs off of what’s now Key West, and sunk, along with indescribable fortune and around 500 lives.

Image: The Life of Adventure

The fantastic wreck was one of legends, because for nearly 350 years the Atocha had never been located. But then in 1985, after sixteen years of searching and five bankruptcies, treasure hunter and sometime-pirate Mel Fisher finally accomplished what no one else before him could: determined the location of the lost ship. Once he and his team of divers finally came across the hull of the Atocha, oh boy were they in luck! Fisher and the State of Florida spent years fighting about who owned the loot, taking the legal battle all the way to the US Supreme Court, and in the seminal case of Finders Keepers versus Losers Weepers, determined that Mel was the rightful owner of  the entire treasure… and seriously, it’s pretty legit. Although Mel passed away a few years ago, his family now runs dive operations to the site of the Atocha and Santa Margarita where investors have the opportunity to dive for treasure.

Images: money.cnn.com

Want a little token from the ship? Check out their sites sale section, although the 11 carat emerald and gold brooch already sold for $1.1 million as did a queen’s jewelry set for $800,000. Lucky for all the shoppers, a gold filigree locket is up for sale for $400,000, as is a 28.53 carat rough emerald for $733,1609.

Drink your Way Down Pirate Alley in New Orleans, Louisiana

Image: gary j wood/Flickr

The French Quarter has always been crazy-popular, although the type of people that hang out there has changed significantly over the years. Instead of the booze-happy frat boys now imbibing on the streets of New Orleans, booze-happy pirates used to roam those same streets, especially the dark corner known as ‘Pirate Alley’. Located at the crossroads of a church (St. Louis Cathedral), a state office (the Cabildo) and a bar (Pirates Alley Cafe), Pirates Alley has always been in the center of action… especially in the early 1800s, when famous pirate brothers Jean and Pierre Lafitte set up shop in the alley, selling smuggled and stolen goods.

Image: gary j wood/ken lund/Flickr

Grab a Bite and Pray you Don’t Get Shanghaied at the Pirates House in Savannah, Georgia

Savannah wasn’t always known for stately buildings and southern hospitality. When colonists first landed there in 1733, the city they built was intended to be a haven of freedom and plenty. But twenty years later the town had become, you could say, a little rough around the edges. Since it was a major port city, Savannah had it’s fair share of riffraff coming in from the sea. These men needed a place to stay while in port, and so a former gardeners house was turned into an inn to provide a home-away-from-ship and a meeting house for pirates planning their next great adventure.

Image: stevespatucci

Unfortunately for the common deck hands, pirates often had trouble filling out the roster for their crew. Instead of trying to convince seafaring men of the leadership skills they possess, the strength of their vessel, or nobility of their cause, pirate captains got into the nasty habit of drugging unsuspecting would-be crew members and stealing them away in the dead of night. When the shanghaied men would wake up, they would be miles out to sea on the way to some exotic locale, forced to work for the return trip home.

Image: stevethechamp/britanica

Where was the best place for this not-so-moral recruitment to go down? The inn of course! Especially because underneath the ‘Captains Room’ of the inn existed, rumor has it, a rum cellar that lead all the way to the river, a few blocks away. Today the inn has become The Pirates House and operates 15 dining rooms out of the old rooms. Grab a drink, if you dare.

Best Former Pirate Hangout in the Caribbean Part 1: Tortuga, Haiti

Image: Wikipedia

Tortuga was one of the most infamous pirate dens in all of the Caribbean. Christopher Columbus landed on the island as part of his explorations in 1493, and even though it was a kind of a backwater by colonial standards, the Spanish, Dutch, English and French all claimed a piece. By the mid 17th century, most of the colonial powers (except the French, who had installed a rather ineffectual governor there) had moved on, and seeing this, pirates began to use Tortuga as a base for operations.

Image: Wikipedia

Although a number of infamous scallywags inhabited this parts of the Caribbean, the pirates and privateers of Tortuga actually formed a kind of syndicate called the “Brethren of the Coast”, which more or less set general guidelines for the pirates’ “enterprises” and even provided a code of conduct. The demographics of the members of this coalition were mainly made up of Europeans, but they also welcomed escaped slaves, African sailors, and outlaws of any nationality. Still, these buccaneers were far more unruly than other outlaws in the region — so much so that the French governor imported over 1600 fine, upstanding, working women (cough cough prostitutes cough) in an attempt to control the pirates.

Image: Fotos del Carib

There isn’t much left from the heyday of the pirates of Tortuga, save for a few relics and locals trying to capitalize off the very successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, even though the producers never filmed on the island. And although piracy is pretty much dead in the region, the regional capital for Tortuga, Port-de-Paix on the Haitian mainland, is still known among law enforcement officials as a place to smuggle goods into the United States.

Best Former Pirate Hangout in the Caribbean Part 2: Port Royal, Jamaica

Image: everything irie/Flickr

While Tortuga was made up of a loose-knit community of beach-and cove-dwelling pirates without a real center of power, Port Royal was a freewheeling center of debauchery, raiding, and wealth, all concentrated within the confines of a small fort. While the Spanish colonial superpower controlled most of the Caribbean, the English controlled Jamaica, and privateers and pirates set off from Port Royal so they could steal and pillage as much as they could. At its height in the mid 1600s, Port Royal was one of the richest and most important colonies in the New World.

Image: Wikipedia

If you were looking for a place to party and get rich in the 1600s, then Port Royal would have to be high up on your list of must-see destinations. Not only did the town have a pub for every 10 citizens, it had an ample number of traders and merchants all of whom were looking to get in on the action. As Port Royal gained a reputation as a den of inequity, the few upstanding citizens left in the city demanded that the English authorities regulate the mischief. Soon enough, local governors started to crack down on piracy and the laws of the town took a 180° turn, oddly enough, banning the same operations that made the town rich.

Images: Christian y Sergio/Flickr

If all the pirate activity was pushed off the island by the early 1690s, it was probably in the town’s best interests anyways. In 1692, a massive 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Port Royal at 11:43am (according to a stopwatch that was miraculously found in the harbor during modern archaeological digs.) Almost two-thirds of Port Royal sunk into the sea, killing almost 2000 citizens. While the city was soon abandoned, survivors resettled across the harbor and eventually founded what is now Jamaica’s capital, Kingston. Today, you can still see parts of Port Royal’s fort and remnants of the town, attracting historians and archaeologists who believe that artifacts from the town that sunk to the bay are still recoverable.

Where Blackbeard Met His Maker: Ocracoke, North Carolina

Long after the end of of the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean, a man named Edward Teach joined up with a gang of pirates who operated in the Bahamas. This man would soon acquire his own ship (more on that later) and become known as Blackbeard, one of the most feared pirates of the early 18th century. While his raids took him throughout the Antilles and the greater Caribbean, he also became a real thorn in the side of British authorities, all the while using Ocracoke as an anchorage.

Image: awinner/Flickr

At the height of Blackbeard’s power, his fleet blockaded the Port of Charleston and demanded ransom from the city’s governors in the form of medical supplies. He also managed to “liberate” a few merchant ships that tried to push through the blockade on their way to England. Although the city eventually struck a deal with Blackbeard, the local authorities were furious that his attitude could be so brazen. When Blackbeard’s ship ran aground near Ocracoke in 1718, a British officer named Robert Maynard was tasked with hunting down the pirate and bringing him to justice. After a fierce battle, Maynard defeated Blackbeard and beheaded him.

Image: g2 Duckworth

While there aren’t any remnants of the battle, you can visit the approximate location of Blackbeard’s anchorage at Teach’s Hole in Ocracoke, which offers a number of pirate-related items for sale (not for steal), a display of artifacts from the pirate era including swords and flag displays, and models of Blackbeard’s ships.

The Resting Place of Blackbeard’s Ship: Queen Anne’s Revenge

Image: racketrx/Flickr

Although Blackbeard’s death was highly publicized by the British in 1718 (his head was stuck atop a stake and was then placed at the entry to Hampton Roads in Virginia as a warning to other pirates), many wondered what happened to his ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, which was abandoned after it ran aground in North Carolina. The Queen Anne’s Revenge, which was used by the French as a slave vessel before falling into Blackbeard’s hands in 1717, served as his flagship throughout his raids in the Caribbean.

Image: allygirl520/Flickr

Almost 280 years after the ship disappeared, researchers discovered a wreckage near Atlantic Beach in North Carolina and after careful study, believe it is indeed Blackbeard’s former ship! Tens of thousands of artifacts have been removed from the site, including loaded cannons and other items that would be associated with a 18th century pirate. The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources is attempting to build interest about the site and in 2004 the wreckage of the Queen Anne’s Revenge was put on the National Register of Historic Places.

Do you know of any OTHER great pirate sites around the world? Leave ’em in the comments!

Tags: Blackbeard, Florida, Georgia, Haiti, Il Sainte-Marie, Jamaica, Key West, louisiana, Madagascar, New Orleans, North Carolina, Ocracoke, Pirate Alley, pirates, Pirates House, Port Royal, Queen Anne's Revenge, savannah, scuba diving, Teach's House, Tortuga


  • Alana says:

    Neat pictures!

  • Dave says:

    Oak Island, Nova Scotia. Might be the earliest dig for pirate treasure (first started in 1795).

  • joe stewart says:

    Great story..but left out a few American places of interest for pirate lovers…Mobile Alabama hosted pirates from time to time…..Galveston Texas and Galveston bay became the haunts of Jean Lafitte and company after being run out of Louisiana…. on the Northern coast in Maine and Nova Scoitia these were hanunted by Captain Kidd and others…the mystery of Oak Island money pit is attributed to him and several other pirates… from the revolutionary war…a sunken pirate ship a/k/a privatieer..is even attributed to Ben Frankland…plus of course you never touched on the pirates off Java or the South China Coast….still a great over view of pirates

  • Rachel Greenberg says:

    Wow Joe thanks for all that great info. You sure know your stuff 🙂

  • Johnny Silver says:

    All the romantic pseudo-historic tale-telling aside, pirates are and were, nasty, parasitic murderous scum who without mercy or thought would prey on anyone who might be handy.

  • Melissa Goodman says:

    Perhaps a place of interest.
    Though not piratey per say, Sunny Jim’s Cave, affectionately named by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L Frank Baum, was used for smuggling whiskey and Chinese immigrants during the prohibition.


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